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THE INFLUENCE OF KEATS UPON THE EARLY 
POETRY OF TENNYSON 

It is most unusual to find a unanimity in the voice of criticism 
with respect to any detail of a poet's life or art ; but, singular to 
relate, this' phenomenon, rarer in occurrence than the discovery 
of a new astral system, may be observed in connection with a 
study of Tennyson. For there does not seem to have been made 
any noteworthy dissent from the generally accepted belief that 
Tennyson, in his youth, was a disciple of Keats; that from "the 
pure, the blushful Hippocrene" of Keats' verse he imbibed divine 
inspiration, and that the witchery of his epithets, the consummate 
perfection of his form, and the exquisite melody of his verse, were 
due, in large part, to a loving and diligent study of the works of 
his ill-fated predecessor. 

Ever since the poems of Tennyson were wrangled over by re- 
viewers and lampooned by criticasters, the names of Tennyson 
and Keats have been inseparably connected in the minds of those 
who cherish real poetry as a sacred possession. In one of the 
earliest reviews, by Lockhart, of the volume containing "The 
Lady of Shalott," Tennyson is pronounced to be "a new prodigy 
of genius, another and brighter star of that galaxy or milky way 
of poetry of which the lamented Keats was the harbinger." 
Amongst later critics, F. M. Owen says: "When one fully under- 
stands the invention and imagination of 'Hyperion,' one begins 
to appreciate how incalculable was Tennyson's debt to Keats." 
Mr. Arthur Waugh believes that Tennyson's early poems "com- 
bined with Wordsworth's sympathy with the countryside, a rich- 
ness of variety and melody which may have been due to the influ- 
ence of Keats." Finally, Dr. Henry Van Dyke considers Tenny- 
son to be "moving on the same lines that Keats had begun to fol- 
low," and he adds that "he was going beyond his leader." These 
references to the influence of the one poet upon the other might 
easily be multiplied ; the few that I have given, however, suffice 
for the purposes of this essay, and serve, satisfactorily enough, to 
indicate the trend of critical opinion on the subject under dis- 
cussion. 



286 The Sewanee Review 

According to the biographer, Waugh, Tennyson made his first 
acquaintance with the poems of Keats during his residence at 
Cambridge. He seems to have read both the Odes and the Tales 
with particular enthusiasm and to have entertained for them a 
"special affection." Whatever the period in which Tennyson first 
saw these achievements of a kindred spirit and whatever the emo- 
tions with which he may have regarded them, it is certain that the 
"Poems, Chiefly Lyrical," published in 1830, as well as all those 
written before 1843, show distinct traces of the influence of 
Keats; and, while we cannot deny that they are characterized by 
marked originality of treatment, we must not be blind to the 
fact that much of their charm results from a power of vivid de- 
scription of scenery, a mastery of picturesque delineation of ob- 
jects, and a skill in sound suggestion by means of words har- 
moniously modulated, which Keats enjoyed to a degree none since 
Milton could boast of, and which he seemed to have bequeathed, 
like another Elijah, to his youthful successor. I shall endeavor, 
therefore, to point out to what extent the influence of Keats may 
be discerned in the writings of the Victorian Laureate, and to 
show how this influence affected the diction, metre and rhythm of 
Tennyson, how it spurred him on towards the attainment of a 
more perfect form, and how it modified his choice and treat- 
ment of theme. 

Soon after the publication of his earliest productions, Keats 
fell captive to the sway of Milton's organ music, and thenceforth 
he pondered in his heart the favorite maxim of the Puritan bard 
that "poetry should be simple, sensuous and impassioned." Of 
the sensuous and impassioned qualities of Keats' work it is not 
necessary now to speak. The simplicity of his poetry, however, is, 
in many of his pieces, marred by a serious fault. Keats had a 
passion for fine sounding language, and a delight in the use of 
epithets — of the kind best denoted by the German word, schwar- 
merisch— which he often carried to an extreme. This exuberance 
in expression, which is so marked in Keats (and which the Cock- 
ney would perhaps term "high-falutin"), quickly caught Tenny- 
son's fancy and led him, almost in his earliest poems, to emulate 
his master in the over-luxuriant use of epithets and fine words. 
There is a singular resemblance between the class of epithets 



Influence of Keats Upon the Early Poetry of Tennyson 287 

which most frequently recur in the works of the two poets. Of 
that group which Mr. Robert Bridges calls "languid," the follow- 
ing, occurring continually in Keats, appear also on almost every 
page of Tennyson — silvery, sweet, pure, black, white, old, young, 
high, low, mild, dainty, fretful and blessed. There are words 
like flitting, floating, swimming, panting, melting, whirling, circ- 
ling, shrilling; brooding words, such as dark, lone, doleful, for- 
lorn, weary, sole, deep and woeful ; purely descriptive words, such 
as silken, sheeny, shady, shadowy ; and verbs like bill, moan, fret, 
float, light, lap, hoard, wane, wind, echo and girdle. If we tabu- 
late the names of those objects which Keats most repeatedly men- 
tions, we shall be astonished to find how many of them Tenny- 
son as repeatedly refers to. Bell, dew, moon, silver, gold, moss, 
nest, oak, thicket, grot, bee, sunbeam and moon, are a few exam- 
ples of this extremely numerous class of words. 

It may be argued that the words I have named are peculiarly 
adaptable to the exigencies of poetry, and that they may be found 
in the vocabularies of a hundred and one "wielders of poetic 
measures." This is true enough. The words selected have in- 
deed a decidedly poetic ring; and more than one poet has cer- 
tainly availed himself of their beauty ; but the point is that thev do 
not elsewhere play as important a role as with Keats, nor is their 
use so recklessly abused by any previous writer. Must not 
this strikingly frequent recurrence of certain epithets have attract- 
ed the curious gaze of Tennyson, close and eagle-eyed student 
that he was? And is there not reason in assuming that Tenny- 
son should be impressed with the charm, the vigor and the espe- 
cial fitness of these words; should garner them into the granary 
of his capacious mind; and employ them when the occasion of- 
fered? This, at. least, appears to be a satisfactory explanation of 
the fact that Tennyson indulges in the excessive use of certain 
words which were characteristic of the diction of Keats. Thus, 
the word "silver" (or its derivatives), is a term with which Keats 
ever delights to conjure up effective landscape pictures. In four 
successive poems of Tennyson the following uses of it are found : 

And silver-smiling Venus ere she fell 
Would often loiter in her balmy blue. 



288 



The Sewanee Review 



Down from the central fountain's flow — 
Fell silver-chiming — 

Many a fall. 

Till I came 
Upon the rear of a procession, curving round 
The silver-sheeted bay. 

Six columns, three on either side, 
Pure silver. 

And the silvery marish flowers that throng 
The desolate creeks. 

In the poems before 1843, "silver" and "silvery" are mentioned 
no less than twenty-eight times, nor does Tennyson fail to make 
an equally lavish use of the other words above referred to. 

Interesting evidence is furnished by Tennyson's use of com- 
pound words, in such descriptive phrases as, "light-glooming 
brow," "sudden-curved frown," and "golden-netted smile." This 
peculiarity of the Laureate, which often, as in "Margaret," 
amounted to a tiresome mannerism, might well be a reminiscence 
of Keats, with whom this species of epithet enjoyed an equally 
immoderate favor. Thus, the "Endymion" abounds in such 
phrases as, "sweet-lipp'd ladies," "hemlock-breeding moistures," 
"dew-dabbled poppies," and "ebon-tipped flutes." A list contain- 
ing a number of compound epithets selected indiscriminately from 
the works of the two poets would be effective in showing the 
marked similarity displayed in their choice of words. Such a list 
might contain: 



droop-headed flowers, 
dainty- woful sympathies, 
westward-winding flood, 
light-footed damsels, 
large-eyed wonder, 
wind-scattered surf, 
down-lapsing thought, 
faint-heard hymning, 
ever-changing tale, 
black-hooded forms, 



dull-twanging bow, 
ever-fleeting music, 
mild-minded melancholy, 
emerald-colored water, 
moon-beamy air, 
star-cheering voice, 
evening-lighted wood, 
ever-shifting currents, 
silver-throated eels, 
barge-laden streams. 



Tennyson is justly famed for the magic of his descriptive pow- 
er, for the vividness, the living color and the accuracy of detail 



Influence of Keats Upon the Early Poetry of Tennyson 289 

with which he presents scene after scene of a glorious landscape. 
It was in the school of Keats, however, that he appears to have 
learnt this wonderful art. The following description by Tenny- 
son sounds like an echo from "Endymion" : 

The semi-circle 
Of dark blue waters and the narrow fringe 
Of curving beach — its wreaths of dripping green — 
Its pale pink shells — the summer-house aloft 
That opened on the pines with doors of glass, 
A mountain nest — the pleasure boat that rack'd 
Light-green with its own shadow — keel to keel 
Upon the dappled dimplings of the wave, 
That blanch'd upon its side. 

And this description from "Calidore:" 

The lonely turret, shattered and outworn, 
Stands venerably proud ; too proud to mourn 
Its long lost grandeur; fig trees grow around, 
Aye dropping their hard fruit upon the ground. 
The little chapel with the cross above 
Upholding wreaths, of ivy; the white dove, 
That on the window spread his feathers light, 
And seems from purple clouds to wing its flight. 
Green tufted islands casting their solt shades, 
Across the lake; sequestered leafy glades — 

will serve to show how closely Tennyson's method was allied to 
Keats' skill, and how well the Victorian had learnt from his fore- 
runner the marvelous art of condensing into two sententious yet 
magnificent lines a complete scene from nature. 

The ability to clothe in both a concrete and poetic garment pure 
abstractions like time and distance is a gift which has never been 
bestowed on any but an imaginative genius of the highest order. 
That Keats enjoyed this truly rare power in an eminent degree, 
these beautiful lines eloquently attest: 

And now, as deep into a wood as we 

Might mark a lynx's eye, there glimmered light, 

Fair faces, and a rush of garments white. 

There she stood, 

About a young bird's flutter from the wood. 
19 



290 The Sewanee Review 

Nor will a bee buzz round two swelling peaches, 
Before the point of his light shallop reaches 
Those marble steps that through the waters dip. 

Tennyson has, on various occasions, imitated Keats in an at- 
tempt to materialize abstract conceptions, but the greatest success 
did not always crown his endeavors. As fair specimens of Tenny- 
son's efforts may be noted : 

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves, 
He rode between the barley sheaves. 

a gilded gallery — 
That lent broad verge to distant lands, 
Far as the wild swan wings. 

We rode 
Till we could see the college lights 
Begin to glitter fire-fly like in copse 
And linden alley. 

When we examine the masterpieces of the two poets with re- 
spect to their delineations of the human form or of the form of 
the gods and goddesses, we are at once struck by the influence of 
the one artist upon the other, and by the predominance of the 
sensuous element in both. In Tennyson's description of Venus, 

Idalian Aphrodite beautiful, 

Fresh as the foam, new bathed in Paphian wells, 

With rosy slender fingers backward drew 

From her warm brows and bosom her deep hair 

Ambrosial, golden, round her lucid throat and shoulders — 

or in that of Paris, 

White breasted like a star 
Fronting the dawn he moved — 

contrast the expressions "white-breasted," and "lucid throat" with 
that of "creamy breast" in 

Soft dimpled hands, white neck and creamy breast, 
Are things on which the dazzled senses rest — 



Influence of Keats Upon the Early Poetry of Tennyson 291 

or with the "pearl-round ear," "orbed-brow," "blush-tinted 
cheeks," and "bluely-veined, whitely-sweet feet," with which 
Keats endows his goddess Diana. 

Much has been written and still more spoken upon the mooted 
question of pictorial description, and this phase of the poetic art 
has been alternately extolled to the tingling stars and debased to 
the profoundest depths to which a bitter criticism could thrust it. 
We need not enter upon a discussion of its merits and demerits 
here. Suffice is to say that were all poetic descriptions deprived 
of their pictorial effects they would prove as bare and uninterest- 
ing as a beauteous summer garden robbed of its choicest flowers. 
Judge of the charm and the magic beauty that lies in these pictorial 
touches of Keats: 

To his capable ears 

Silence was music from the golden spheres. 

One faint, eternal eventide of gems. 

Tennyson was essentially a man of independent thought and 
original ideas. Nothing could have been more revolting to his 
moral and aesthetic principles than servile imitation. Yet, while 
those who accuse him of "unconscious plagiarism," do so with as 
fine a show of logical reasoning as Don Quixote displayed in his 
attack upon the proverbial windmills, it must be acknowledged 
that Tennyson did not hesitate to absorb and assimilate those 
beauties of the poet's art, and to examine those evidences of supe- 
rior workmanship and technique which he encountered in study or 
stumbled upon in reading his favorite authors. Indeed, the beau- 
tiful examples of pictorial description with which the verses of 
Keats furnished him, inspired him to noble efforts in the same 
direction, and his unqualified successes therein are matters of 
such universal knowledge that the testimony of the following 
lines is well-nigh superfluous: 

A spot of dull stagnation, without light 
Or power of movement, seemed my soul. 

The hollow orb of moving Circumstance 
Rolled round by one fixed law. 



292 The Sewanee Review 

The cold and starless road of Death. 

Thus has Tennyson glorified commonplace facts by sublime 
pictures painted with impressive skill. 

Tennyson's love of nature and his close observation of natural 
scenery have proved an endless theme for discussion, as well as 
an increasingly favorite object for his admirers' praise. It is a 
question that must remain unanswered to just what extent the 
Laureate's detailed descriptions were the result of an instinctive, 
analytic penetration, and in just what measure they were induced 
by a careful observation which did not become habitual until the 
poet's admiration had been drawn forth by the descriptive scenery 
of Wordsworth and Keats. One thing may be said in this con- 
nection. The lines 

The seven elms and poplars four 
That stood beside his father's door 

have often been quoted as a striking example of Tennyson's 
power of detailed description — in "Alfred Tennyson," by Andrew 
Lang, for instance. To me they seem merely an instance of that 
deftness in the turning of a phrase, that primitive means of popu- 
larizing verse by pandering to an instinctive human delight in 
enumeration which Keats occasionally indulged in. Tennyson 
probably imitated it from the older poet. In "La Belle Dame 
Sans Merci" we find 

And there I shut her wild, wild eyes 
With kisses four. 

This titillating pleasure which the sound of exact numbers af- 
fords us and which our emotional palates seem to crave is not 
overlooked by the clever rhymesters of the music hall, as a speci- 
men from the "Bab Ballads" will show : 

You have a daughter, Captain Reece, 
Ten female cousins and a niece; 
A ma, if what I'm told is true, 
Six sisters and an aunt or two. 

"Poplars four" and "kisses four," each is poetic, in its setting; 
"Ten female cousins" is burlesque. But the element of attract- 
iveness in every one of these phrases is essentially identical. 



Influence of Keats Upon the Early Poetry of Tennyson 293 

We are not sufficiently conversant with the origin and history 
of Tennyson's poems to be able to describe the extent to which 
Keats influenced the younger poet's choice of theme. We do 
know that the influence, if any, was not tremendous. Tenny- 
son could never bear to bring his Pegasus under yoke, nor did he 
ever attempt to confine his intellect to a narrow circle of ideas. 
On the contrary, he sang those strains to which the Muse in- 
spired his soul, and although he avoided almost every temptation 
to compose occasional pieces, yet his verses embrace a very wide 
range of subjects and deal with almost every conceivable topic 
and tale of human interest. While the majority of Tennyson's 
themes were thus selected independently of the writings of oth- 
ers, some undoubtedly owed their selection to Tennyson's fondness 
for certain incidents which had already been developed by various 
poets. Suggestions of the "Lover's Tale" can be found in Keats' 
"Lamia ;" and it seems not unlikely that when Tennyson had read 
"Hyperion" he sought for subjects on which he could exercise 
his unfledged skill in blank verse and test his progress in the at- 
tainment of form perfection. As we know, he found "Oenone" 
and "Ulysses." "The Lady of Shalott" might have been designed 
as a counter-portrait to the "wretched wight" in "La Belle 
Dame;" the "Ode to Memory" may have been suggested by the 
"Ode to Melancholy ;" and the ballad of "Oriana" seems a strong 
reminiscence of Keats' splendid, weird ballad. 

As in felicity of diction, in descriptive power and in melody of 
verse we can discern the influence of Keats upon Tennyson, so in 
harmony of plot and symmetry of form we can detect enough 
points of resemblance between the compositions of the two to 
warrant us in announcing the indebtedness of the one poet to the 
other. Wherever in English speaking countries Tennyson and 
Keats are appreciatively studied, boundless admiration is evinced 
for that Hellenic stateliness of outline and that Greek measure 
and moderation, which distinguish both poets and exalt them to a 
rank as masters of form unattainable by any one of their literary 
contemporaries. For no thoughtful student of modern European 
literature can fail to have observed the irregularity, the Form- 
losigkeit, to use a German word, which, during the past one hun- 
dred years, has been the most serious and universal failing of our 



294 The Sewanee Review 

English men of letters. Among the greatest and most renowned 
of our novelists there is scarcely one who commands the intrica- 
cies of style and technique with the same skill that every third-rate 
story-teller in France can boast of; our dramatists, such as they 
are, are notoriously inferior to their Gallic brethren in unity of 
theme and in harmonious construction of plot; and our poets, no 
less than these, are lamentably deficient in that calm and classic 
grace, and that severe loveliness of outline, in the absence of which 
no French poet could ever gain national recognition or could so 
much as hope to emerge from the slough of mediocrity. This 
Formlosigkeit, however, which has long since been a target for 
continental shafts of derision, is a fault with which Keats, cer- 
tainly, cannot be charged. Tennyson, on his side, was not slow 
to discover the crowning glory in Keats' diadem of beauties and 
was very quick to perceive that in Keats rather than in the French 
classicists the union of the modern and classical elements had 
been artistically effected. He was profoundly moved by the dis- 
covery that, in Keats alone, the life and freedom of the crude na- 
tive material had not, as in France, been obliterated by an undue 
preponderance of the classical influence, but had rather been mel- 
lowed and chastened by Hellenic moderation and rendered ma- 
jestic by Greek severity, grace and perfection of form. 

Admiration for the grandeur of form in Keats was but an in- 
centive by which Tennyson was spurred on to equal, if not to 
surpass the achievements of his master. A growing dissatisfaction 
with many of the earlier poems made itself felt, and the poet 
effected numerous radical alterations in the pieces published in 
1833, before he permitted their republication in 1842. Notable 
among the poems thus amended are "Oenone," and "The Palace 
of Art," neither of which would possess its present stately beauty 
were it not for the chastening influence upon Tennyson of the 
example of Keats. Nor can the importance of this influence be 
overestimated. The Hellenic sentiment which had inspired the 
imagination of Keats became a permanent factor in the poetry 
of Tennyson, and was henceforth breathed into all his produc- 
tions. It was then that the genius of the Victorian poet fully 
revealed itself; it was then that he created those radiant gems, 
which, like "The Dying Swan," "The Lady of Shalott," "Mariana 



Influence of Keats Upon the Early Poetry of Tennyson 295 

in the South," "The Palace of Art," "The Lotos Eaters," and 
the "Morte d'Arthur," form a resplendent galaxy that alone 
would suffice to immortalize his name, that dazzle and astound 
us with the exquisiteness of their expression as well as with the 
flawless perfection of their form. 

In an essay concerned with the influence of one poet upon 
another, the writer labors under a serious disadvantage. Indis- 
putable evidence or convincing facts in support of an affirmative 
position are more difficult to gather than violets in mid-winter, 
while probabilities and speculations may be marshalled forward 
in a most formidable array. Nor could it be otherwise. A great 
poet does not compose verses on which we can place our finger 
and say with positiveness, this stanza was imitated from Milton, 
and that one from Shakespeare. A poet of the highest order 
"imitates no one." He may, indeed, scrutinize, with a zealous 
fidelity, the models which genius has already created; and a 
broad-minded study of those models may shape anew his thought 
and expression, and radically alter the lines along which the de- 
velopment of his course would otherwise have proceeded. The 
youthful Tennyson commenced his career possessed of some 
power to produce melody, rhythm and color, and impressed with 
the profound conviction that destiny had assigned to him a grand 
and noble mission. In his heart he cherished the loftiest senti- 
ments concerning the truly sublime poet, believing, with Milton, 
that he is both born and made ; and, with respect to himself, he 
was not for one moment deluded into supposing that he had at- 
tained an absolute mastery of his art. 

Indeed, a sense of his own imperfections drove him to a detailed 
study of the masters in the field of poetry and impelled him to 
subject their works to a rigorous, critical examination. With that 
inexplicable faculty which enables genius to absorb so readily 
whatever it may require to nurture and strengthen it, Tennyson 
profited in turn by the examples of Milton, of Wordsworth, of 
Shelley, and of Keats. To Keats, in particular, the Victorian Lau- 
reate was incalculably indebted. By him, as I have attempted to 
show, he was most powerfully influenced in the choice of subject- 
matter, in the perfect painting of nature, in the deft handling of 
metre and rhythm, and in the charm and simplicity of pictorial de- 



296 The Sewanee Review 

scription. To Keats, above all things, he owed that delicate infu- 
sion of the classical element, and that Hellenic sentiment of delight 
in the bright and beautiful which gave measure and moderation 
to the products of his luxuriant fancy and added a stately classic 
grace to the exquisite music of his songs. Yet, be it well under- 
stood, no element of servile dependence characterized the relation 
in which Tennyson stood to Keats. The young Victorian may 
have learnt much from his lamented precursor, but he never 
stooped to make slavish copies. Externally, his verse may have 
undergone modifications; but, from the first, the soul which un- 
derlies them remained pure and free. And it is this soul which 
inspires and animates every poem, it is this soul which rejoices in 
its untrammelled freedom, and which, together with Keats and 
Spenser, exultantly inquires, "What more felicity can fall to 
creature, than to enjoy delight with liberty?" 

Felix Grendon. 
The College of the City of New York.